Marketing or Pigeonholing?: The Christian as Author Part VI

Over the last few weeks as we’ve talked about the Christian as author, one theme that I seem to keep returning to is the idea of illegitimate divisions.  For instance, I don’t see that there needs to be a difference between “good” literature and “Christian” literature—they can be one and the same.  Neither do I think that certain, specific themes or ideas are always necessary to set something apart as “Christian” nor do I believe that the absence of those themes necessarily means that something doesn’t exhibit a Christian worldview.  It occurs to me that perhaps part of the problem with all these divisions can be found in recent marketing methodology itself.

First, let me get it out there that I am, by far, a rank amateur when it comes to marketing theory.  I can speak with some authority in other areas—history, for instance—but I don’t want to put on airs where none belong.  What follows is my general opinion, and I feel a little guilty about offering it up without more specific research to bolster it.  Then again, isn’t that what blogs are for?  🙂  Of course, I do have one claim I can make:  I have been the victim of all sorts of marketing, I know how it strikes me, and I know how I have reacted.

From where I sit, I think that part of the potential issue is that when we set out to market a product, we are told that in order to effectively do so, we must identify very specific, self-conscious niches and aim for them.  This technically should begin before you even create your product.  When you do, it should be tailored to the individual needs and wants of your particular niche.  Once complete, you then set out to reach that group with an equally tailored set of tactics that demonstrate to them exactly how your product is something that group cannot live without.

As consumers, these tactics have encouraged some less-than-desirable behavior traits and ways of thinking.  From the cradle to the grave, we are taught to believe that our own little group is and should be the center of the proverbial universe.  Bombarded on all sides each day by contradictory information and competing truth-claims,[1] we filter things out based most often on what happens catch our attention as being the most interesting/applicable to our group.  We also, just as often, look down on/mock items or ideas that are associated with other groups with which we fail to identify.

That plays into the cultural “Christian fiction” divide in a couple of ways, neither of them positive.

First, on the business level, it promotes the idea that Christian books must, by definition, be written specifically for the Christian subculture, published by Christian publishing houses, and sold in Christian bookstores to Christian readers.  That sometimes comes about via self-segregation of the worst kind (i.e. Christian authors and publishers who only “preach to the choir”) and at other times it is external (i.e. if something is explicitly “reserved” for Christians, why would non-Christians read it?).  In the former situation, we end up with the rot I openly mocked in my initial post in the series.  In the latter, we have the equally useless false dichotomy of having to decide whether a piece of literature is “Christian” or just “good,” the topic of post number four.  Publishers will insist on pigeonholed books because “everyone knows” that is what sells.  If a book doesn’t fit the premade categories, it risks complete exclusion.

Second, on the level of individual people, this marketing environment builds walls of mutual exclusion and, at times, positively unchristian thinking.  Both sides of the religious fence presume that in order for something to be worth their time it must be reserved exclusively for them.  That sort of thing plays to our vanity, and it makes us feel special.  Christians will feel spiritually superior for only reading “Christian” books from Christian bookstores, while non-Christians simply write off as worthless anything to which such labels have been appended.  Perhaps worse, authors who simply try to write good stories from a consistent worldview tend to be forgotten and are sometimes actually denigrated for being “traitors” to their group when they write something that appeals to a broader audience.  Christians have a particularly bad habit of doing just that.[2]

Lost in the shuffle, of course, is the idea that, as Christians, we might actually just sit down and produce a good book about pictures or characters in our heads; that we might write a story just to tell it, rather than to sell to a specific group of people.  Of course, that is exactly what C. S. Lewis did with the Chronicles of Narnia, which began not as an attempt to sell millions of books to kids, but when the whimsical image of a faun carrying in an umbrella in a snowy wood skittered across his brain.  When Aslan came “bounding” into the story, the rest essentially wrote itself.

I wrote my book first and foremost to be a good story about a number of lively characters, places, and ideas that I felt almost obligated to bring to life as a sub-creator in the Tolkienian sense of the word.  Like Lewis, my book is generally aimed at younger readers (about 9th or 10th grade), but I hope that anyone “old enough to read fairy tales again” will enjoy it.  I don’t want it to be pigeon-holed, but I fear that if we don’t do the “smart” things, Waverly Hall:  Relois will languish in cyber space, unread.

The answer to the dilemma?  I haven’t the foggiest idea.

Next Week:  Another example–C. S. Lewis v.s. the allegory

[1]To get a real sense of this, slow down and look around you the next time you’re in Walmart or some similar location.  Try to really comprehend the sheer number things that are all demanding your attention and your agreement—from the claims on a tube of toothpaste (Our’s gets your teeth the whitest!) to the talking heads on the video screens (We sell for less!).  Then, try to imagine the immense effort it would take to really make sense of it all, if you seriously tried to sort through them and decide which ones were really correct.  That goes a long way, I think, to explaining why people just don’t care anymore–they simply let themselves be attracted to whatever is the shiniest, from their point of view.

[2]By way of example, I’m reminded of the way some Christian musicians are treated when they actually have a song that is a hit on both secular and Christian stations.  Those around in the late eighties/early nineties will remember what happened to Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.

Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series

  1. The Cesspool Of Christian Fiction
  2. What?  Me Christian?
  3. A Holistic Approach
  4. “Good Fiction” or “Good Christian Fiction?”
  5. Of Christian Authors and Christian Pizza Makers
  6. What does it look like?
  7. Tolkien and the Rebellion of Melkor

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on September 15, 2011, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Children's Literature, Christianity, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary Criticism, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, Theology, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Good analysis for a marketing neophyte. 😉 One does not even have to cross the Christian/Secular line to run afoul of this problem. One analysis I’ve heard of the relative obscurity of my own books is that they are too intelligent for the “popular” market and too well written for the “scholarly” market. So they don’t end up getting marketed to anybody because nobody in marketing knows what to do with them. So what am I supposed to do? Dumb then down and load them with jargon?

    One cannot ignore niches. Unless you have a specific group of people whose desires and expectations you are fulfilling, you have no audience. But to think that the only readers out there are the ones that the marketing department already has pigeon-holed into their cliched categories can only stifle creativity. I haven’t figured out how to navigate these straits successfully either, as a cursory survey of my Amazon rankings will demonstrate. What we need are some Christian business majors with some literary sensitivity who are willing to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Any volunteers?

    • Just to clarify too, I didn’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t have an audience in mind when we write (though I can see how it looks like I might). In general I just meant that if a book is really worth its snuff, it will be valuable to all sorts of different people.

      For instance, I can still actually pick up and enjoy good comic books or even Dr. Seuss at my age. They aren’t “aimed” at me, and I don’t seek them out, but the quality is such that it commands appreciation and recognition.

  2. I have long argued that there is a billion dollar industry in this nation who’s primary purpose is to convince you and me that we are not adequate as we are and what we have is not good enough. This is the advertising industry. That’s a very different take on it, agreed, but one that we need to realize as well because it has a significant unconscious effect on us. Any wonder that depression is endemic?

    Good advertising informs and educates. How often do we see this now?

    I would also suggest that the very idea of selling books is an uphill climb in our current society. The number of readers is dropping off sharply as more and more people are reliant on visual media. The specific market to find is those of us who take time to read any more. I’m not sure how you find us.

  3. As proof of your arguments, note the manner in which the movie “Seven Days inEutopia” is being “pitched” on television. Have seen/heard the ad numerous times today and am about ready to gag. It is being pushed as the “#1 Christion film in the country” and a “must see for every Christian”. Have whoever is the marketing “brain” behind this have just shot themselves in the foot and eliminated anyone who does not consider themselves “christion” from their audience.

  4. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to leave deep and insightful comments considering the amount of time I stared at the picture of the pigeon (thinking dove) and wondering what in the world it had to do with anything…

    But speaking as someone who had grown incredibly and immensely happy and comfortable in a primarily Christian environment and was then thrust into an alien world (filled with castles… alien castles?) where people have actually asked me to clarify what being a Christian means, it is deeply depressing to think about how many people would simply never pick up a copy of the book if it was always advertised as “by Christian” and “for Christians” because it would immediately be something “not for them” in their minds. Not that those aren’t true statements, primarily the former, but they are constricting and an audience that already has trouble narrowing down what to choose from the vast amount of literature available will probably be relieved to have one more book to put on the “don’t have to read this one” list simply because of how it was advertised.

    • Yes, Melissa, there are white pigeons…. 😉

      I think the problem is also compounded because the amount of money people can make off of the Christian market is pretty significant. Just look at Left Behind. That makes it even less tempting to try to challenge the boundaries.

      Of course, I’ll be happy if I can get several thousand of ANY type of person it pick up and read through Meg, boundaries be darned!

  1. Pingback: The Christian as Author Exemplified: C. S. Lewis and the Basis of the Chronicles of Narnia « While We're Paused

  2. Pingback: A Question of Palates: The Christian as Author Part VII « While We're Paused

  3. Pingback: Marketing or Pigeonholing?: The Christian as Author Part VI « While … | ChristianBookBarn.com

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